Deep in the wells of the South African literary canon, Can Themba is surfaced through the works of theatre practitioner Khayelihle Dom Gumede. The Wits University graduate, through the mentorship of Kgafela wa Magodi, has dug deep into the archives to bring together a production running at the Market Theatre. Crepuscule – is an adaptation of one of Can Themba’s short stories by the same title.
Set in the infamous Spohiatown – the cultural mecca of Johannesburg that gave birth to some of the most influential figures in South African history, Crepuscule explores Themba’s love affair with a white women, an act which under the apartheid regime was forbidden by law.
It is against this love story that the play introduces the world of Can Themba. The role of Can is played by Leroy Gopal, who depicts the character of Themba as a charming and witty intellectual who is full of energy. But it is later revealed that beyond this charm and wit is a pessimistic mind with and an optimistic spirit.
Can’s charm proves to be too great for an up-class white woman to resist. Can romantic pursuit, Jean Hart, is played by Kate Liquorish. Jean is born in South Africa but is raised in Britain. She returns to South Africa along with her wealthy husband, who is in pursuit of investment opportunities. Through his charm and wit, Themba convinces her to come and explore Sophiatown.
She is mesmerised by the scenery and culture of the slum. Perhaps one can argue that to her, Can was the embodiment of Sophiatown. It at first appeared to be the case of an eager and intrigued woman flirting with danger…devouring a forbidden fruit. Such an analogy, it would appear, is one Can was also aware of. She, however, dispels Can’s belief that her interests were rooted solely on the prospects of Can’s anatomy as it was believed to be the case with white woman and black men during that period.
Can’s affair with a white woman is met with skepticism by his mother and his two confidants and drinking partners. Themba’s mother, played by Thami Ngoma. She is quick to warn Jean that she is just one of the many romantic escapades her son has had. Themba’s life is disrupted by Jean as she explicitly states that their affair to her was not merely a case of fetishism but that she had fallen in love with him. Can’s situation is further antagonised by his girlfriend discovering about his illicit affair. Themba’s girlfriend, Baby, is played by the talented and Emmy-nominated Lerato Mvelase – who did very well on this play. She switches with so such ease between two roles of Baby and Kleinboy.
The 82-minute long production offers a bit of everything, but is not tamed by one specific thing. An infusion of poetic lingua and melancholic music is executed to perfection by the talented cast. As can be expected, political rhetoric is not absent in this unorthodox love story. For most theatre enthusiasts, political rhetoric often tends to plague any work of theatre, perhaps this can be argued for all works of art. However, in Crepuscule, one is made aware of the body politic but there is no real sense of imposition from the play to the audience.
Can, who along with other prolific black writers such as Nat Naksa, Es’kia Mphahlele, and Henry Nxumalo, worked as a journalist for Drum magazine – the first notable publication that represented the voice of black people in the metropolis. It is during his years at Drum that Can established himself as the prodigal son of South African literature. Though not widely published as some of his peers, notably Mphahlele, Can is highly revered for his coverage and portrayal of the hardships of African lives during the apartheid regime.
Dubbed the “shebeen intellectual”, it is alleged that Can struggled with chronic alcohol use, which would later be the cause of what some suggest was the premature death of the Drum journalist.
The skeleton of love as the main force behind the narrative brings to the fore salient themes which are undertaken in the play. Perhaps one which prevails supreme is that of the ambiguities of apartheid and its effects thereof. For Jean who’s encounters with the “forbidden fruit” disrupted not only her marriage, but brought her whole world as she knew it into question. And most importantly, it would seem that for Themba, the resulting factor of his endeavors re-affirmed what he had already believed.